By Janae Moss
I remember walking through the doors of South Davis Junior High school at the beginning of my seventh-grade year.
I was wearing my favorite blue sweater that I ordered from the JCPenney catalog, and I was excited about my carefully applied pink and blue L’Oreal eyeshadow. My permed hair and ratted bangs were frozen into the perfect 80’s shape with my Aqua Net hairspray -- the same bangs that caught a fly during ballet lessons earlier that year. (Through desperate swats, I set the insect free before anyone knew, until now.)
On picture day, I awkwardly sat on an old wooden stool. The photographer looked straight into my face and barked, “Stop frowning and smile for the camera!” I was forcing my Lip Smackers lips over my shiny new braces, which created an uncomfortable image to behold. I looked around and wondered how all of the other girls were perfectly confident.
I was trying desperately to be accepted. But what I really wanted was to belong.
Many years later, having raised six daughters, I can confidently say that none of the girls in junior high felt perfectly confident, and my decision to roll and peg my acid-washed jeans might have earned me some approval, but it was never going to make me feel like I belonged.
The details change when we are adults, but the story is the same.
Our deepest need is to belong. We join clubs, read bestsellers, hop on social media threads, we even reject other people or ideas to feel like we are a part of a group.
Belonging is fundamental to us. Have you ever felt unwelcome or excluded? At school, or at work, or in your own family? It’s excruciating to bear. On the flip side, are there places where you feel that you do belong? Think of what that place looks like, what it sounds or smells or tastes like, what you do there. Let yourself feel the sense of safety and satisfaction that come from belonging.
This sensation is very different from acceptance, or fitting in. It’s different from being appreciated. At the very heart of “belonging” is the word “long.” To be-long to something is to stay with it for the long haul. It is an active choice we make to a relationship, to a place, to our body, to life because we value it.
When you can count on that sense of belonging, and when you know how to create it, your life changes. Your community changes.
I regularly train groups on social connections and building relationships. One of the main points we cover is how to genuinely welcome and listen to people. Magic happens when people take the time to sit across from one another (or on Zoom) and connect. When someone feels overlooked or like attention is conditional on “fitting in,” they will not open up and build a substantial connection. But with sincere listening, when you take the time to understand another person’s world and are curious about them, a genuine bond begins to form.
When we consciously tear down the invisible walls of judgment, people don’t just get to know one another. Listening across differences with openness and curiosity means that people can feel comfortable and safe. Their strengths and talents can peek out. They begin to grow into their potential as co-workers, parents, friends, volunteers, students, employees, teammates. Our community becomes stronger because we see and affirm people for who they are.
And, trust me, there will be differences. We celebrate and worship differently. We raise our families differently. We have different levels of education. We have different languages. We have different ways life has been rough on us. We respond differently to major national issues.
Differences are normal. Our power lies in not letting them separate us into small, fragile, and fearful silos. To combat that fear, we must take the simple actions of belonging upon ourselves. Those actions let us connect so that we are better across our communities, across our city.
Strangely enough, the choice to build belonging is an individual choice. We can’t control how others treat us. We can only choose how we will treat others. So let’s start there. 2020 has been a year of unbearable loneliness and isolation, from schoolkids who can’t see their friends for months to restaurant workers who can’t serve the patrons they love. Let each of us practice belonging — learning how to listen with genuine curiosity — so that we come through with strength, together.
We don’t need ratted bangs and Aqua Net to find our way to belonging (though it would be hilarious to recreate that look). Start with one friend, one acquaintance, one person, and listen to what they have to say.
Oh, and just in case you were wondering, I didn’t make the cheerleading team - not by a long shot. Thank goodness “Mindy” still thought I was “cool” and thought, “next year will be great!”
Janae Moss is the mother of seven, grandmother of four, co-owner of multiple businesses, family advocate, and community organizer. She is the co-founder of Parents Driving Change, and its umbrella organization, Humans Driving Change. PDC encourages parents to use their innate ability to lead, by sharing their experiences with the organizations that support them. She and her husband, Jon, have built several businesses, including their flagship RBM Building Maintenance. She has a BA in Integrated Studies, with an emphasis in Psychology and Leadership, and is earning a Master’s in Performance Psychology.